the gift of life: emerson college student donates bone marrow to stranger

Back in 2011, after saving a young woman’s life, Maxine Renning was left with a few reminders; four small holes in her back and a lifelong friend. Now as a 20-year-old marketing major at Emerson College, Renning is doing what she can to continue helping others fight against blood cancers.

Before being diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, or MDS, Jenna Langer had already beaten cancer twice. In 2003, the then 17-year-old Langer had just celebrated homecoming week with friends in her hometown of New Ulm, Minnesota when she was diagnosed with bone cancer. Though the bone cancer was successfully treated, the chemotherapy and radiation used to fight the first disease caused her to battle with thyroid cancer in 2007.

By the time Langer was diagnosed with MDS in 2011, a bone marrow transplant was her only option. The constant radiation and chemotherapy depleted most of her bone marrow and compromised her immune system. The possibility of her MDS forming into leukemia was highly probable and she would not be able to go through chemotherapy again.

Renning, 18 years old at the time of her registration, had already donated blood multiple times during her senior year of high school. She learned of a drive that was giving out free pizza. When she was told her iron levels were not sufficient to donate, she was asked if she would sign up to be on the National Bone Marrow Registry. “I immediately signed up,” Renning said, “it was so easy. All you need is a cheek swab and you’re done.”

Within only 6 months, an extremely short waiting period, Renning was told she would be someone’s match. “I was very excited, but I knew the second I signed up for the registry that it was meant to happen,” Renning said.

And after one year of anonymity, standard procedure after a bone marrow donation, Langer was sent her donors registration form. “It was a really anti-climactic way to find out about her,” Langer explains, “I was sent a simple email with the form and all of a sudden I knew her name and was looking at her handwriting… I immediately jumped onto her Facebook page and started balling.”

During her battle with MDS, Langer created a blog to help keep her loved ones updated on her recovery. She posted this onto the Redhead Reporter right after receiving her donor’s information: “It’s her! My donor! My long-awaited perfect match, Maxine.”

The two women sent each other texts and talked every day until finally, on Nov. 10, 2012, they met at the Be The Match Foundation Conference in Minneapolis, MN. “I thought I would have a more profound and emotional experience when I met Jenna, but it felt so natural,” Renning said.

That seems to be a mutual reaction, as Langer felt like she was meeting her sister that she had already known her whole life. “She was exactly how I imagined her… She’s my family. It’s no longer my families blood running through me, it’s her blood.”

Renning knows that she and Langer will remain close their whole lives and she’s excited to see her again soon, but she feels her work is not quite finished. According to the Institute for Justice, at least 1,000 people die each year because they cannot find a matching donor. Only two percent of the country is even on the Bone Marrow Registry.

Be The Match and many other organizations are spreading the word and raising awareness in hopes of getting more people to sign up. Renning is partnering with Be The Match to bring a registry to Emerson College. “I want to make it a huge event,” Renning said. According to Renning, young people are the best candidates for the list. “We have the healthiest blood and have been exposed to less viruses,” Renning explains.

Because finding a match for a bone marrow transplant is a lot more complicated than for a blood transplant (many people spend their whole lives on the registry without being a match for anyone), it is more important than ever to sign up. Tissue matches are so much more specific than being the same blood type, and because of this, many minorities struggle to find donors. According to the Institute for Justice, African-American patients find an unrelated donor only 25 percent of the time and if they do, there is an 80 percent chance that the identified donor is the only match on the registry.

Renning assures that donating bone marrow is a less invasive then most assume. “Many people think that to register they have to give up bone marrow right then and there. This is false,” said Renning. In fact, a match may not have to harvest marrow at all. There is another option, decided on by the patient’s physician.
According to Be The Match, you could be donating Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) which is a nonsurgical procedure. PBSC’s are the cells in our body designed to form blood. Renning, however, did go through the procedure to harvest a part of her bone marrow and transfer it to Langer.

Renning was ill for about a month after the procedure but she insists this is something everyone should consider participating in. The bone marrow in the body replenishes after a procedure like Renning’s. “I am a small part in the grand scheme of this organization. There are so many people fighting to help others like Jenna… it is a very temporary pain in order to save someone’s life,” Renning said.

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